New York, long known as the best example of the American melting pot, is a city of 8 million people representing religions, and cultures from across the globe, all living together in relative peace – until a few months ago.
Over the last few months, New York became the center point for a wave of Islamophobia that is sweeping across the nation. Much of this anti-Muslim sentiment focused on the plan to build an Islamic cultural center in Lower Manhattan. The Cordoba Center, also known as Park51, incorrectly branded a mosque, despite its design to feature worship areas for other religions.
Motivated by self-described Islamophoebe, Pamela Geller, angry New Yorkers protested Park 51 because of it being built too close to the Twin Towers – even though it is three blocks from the site of the terrorist attack.
However, this heightened tension definitely changed life in New York for Muslims. For example, Michael Enright, a documentary filmmaker, who had just returned from Afghanistan, recently attacked Ahmed H. Sharif, a Muslim cab driver.
Faiza Ali, Community Affairs director for the Council on Islamic Relations - New York, said she has witnessed the change in atmosphere since 9-11. Ali, a second-generation Pakistani, is a practicing Muslim born into a Muslim family.
“After 9/11, the loyalties of Muslims were questioned and fear mongering overpowered rational discourse about Islam in America,” Ali said. “Today, we witness a similar, intense sentiment nationwide. In the last few months, the targeting and demonization of Islam, Muslims, and our religious institutions, began again from California to New York City. Many protests were held both for and against a planned Muslim YMCA because of its proximity to Ground Zero. A Florida pastor threatened to burn copies of the Quran on the anniversary of 9/11. Former House Speaker, Newt Gingrich, a potential candidate in the upcoming presidential election, likened Muslims to Nazis.”
According to a Pew Forum, 35 proposed mosques and Islamic centers encountered some form of resistance in the last two years, Ali said. “In many cases, neighbors cite legitimate concerns like traffic and the overall impact on the quality of life in that area. In some, however, opponents of mosques raise issues about Islam and terrorism.”
She said that there is a lot of misinformation included in the arguments against projects such as Park51. “Opponents to Park51 justify their calls to move the project away from the 9/11 site by erroneously linking the criminals responsible for the attacks to the organizers and its supporters. This insinuation of collective guilt supports the notion that American Muslims should be treated as second-class citizens in our own home are false, un-American, and should be rejected.”
Ali said the sudden wave of Islamophobia did not happen overnight. The flames of intolerance have been fanned by media figures such as Pam Geller, who blogs at Atlas Shrugs, and former politicians, such as Newt Gingrich, who are both trying to raise their national profile.
“Talk radio and television have been used as vehicles to mainstream bigoted views attacking Islam and its adherents by extreme right groups, and some politicians label Muslims as ‘foreign’ and as the ‘other,’” Ali said. “They continue to smear all things Muslim, and justify their insinuations by falsely linking the criminals responsible for the attacks on 9/11 to the entire community to promote their divisive political and ideological agenda. These elements of hate are exploiting the tragedy of 9/11, and deceiving the public into believing that Muslims are the enemy from within.”
Muslims, both in New York and across the nation, are not taking this unfair criticism lying down.
The recent wave of Islamophobia has forced Muslim groups like CAIR to become more proactive in their message. Ali says that it is important for American Muslims to emphasize that they are an integral part of America, and not alien or foreign. Ali points out that Muslims have worshipped in Lower Manhattan since the 1970s.
“This is why dialogue is so critical. We could challenge those stereotypes, and help shift the narrative of Muslims in America by defining ourselves, by sharing our stories, and our shared histories,” Ali said. “And, we are seeing this effort made on the part of our community through service projects like Muslims Serve, civic engagement activities that include get-out-the-vote campaigns, public service announcements like My Faith My Voice, and by using social media. Just last year, CAIR-NY launched a Facebook page titled ‘Hello. My name is Ali,’ that seeks to empower the voice of our grassroots by creating a space for American Muslims from across the spectrum to tell us their aspirations, outlooks, and contributions in their everyday lives.”